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Basque separatist group ETA declares “permanent ceasefire”

The Basque separatist group ETA formally ended a 40 year campaign of violence on Wednesday with an announcement of a ceasefire.

In a video statement shown on national television and distributed to the Basque media, ETA said it “has decided to declare a permanent cease fire as of March 24, 2006.” The announcement brings a close to one of Western Europe’s last active armed separatist movements.

The ETA video showed three people wearing Basque berets and face masks seated at a table in front of an ETA flag. “The objective of our decision is to advance the democratic process,” the statement said, “in order to construct a new framework that will recognize the rights that we as a people deserve.”

Long history of violence

ETA’s long struggle for an independent Basque homeland was one of Western Europe’s last armed internal conflicts, and has often been compared to the decades of sectarian unrest in Northern Ireland. The movement was founded against the background of suppression of Basque independence and culture during the Franco dictatorship (1939-75).

Since its founding in 1959, ETA has been responsible for more than 800 deaths and $15.5 billion in economic damage. The group’s deadliest weapons have been car bombs, usually targeting security forces. During the 1990s, the group began targeting Spanish politicians, including former conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. The most deadly attack claimed by ETA was a 1987 bombing that killed 21 people in an underground parking lot at a Barcelona supermarket.

Recently, ETA has toned down its campaign, and in most cases phones in warning before explosions; most recently, the group has even marked its explosive charges with the words “Danger! Bomb.”

In recent months, ETA has carried out a series of low-level bombings, mostly against business. Many of these bombings are believed to be part of the organization’s efforts to gain “protection money” from Basque businessmen. About a dozen small bombs have gone off, mostly in the Basque region, in the last three weeks. The targets were businesses, banks and institutional offices. ETA has not staged a fatal attack since May 2003, when a car bomb killed two policemen in the northern town of Sanguesa.

The organization has financed its campaign through kidnapping, bank robbery and a so-called “revolutionary tax” on Basque businesses — a payment widely regarded as plain extortion.

Caution and hope

ETA’s announcement that it was calling off its armed struggle was met with cautious hope be Spanish politicians. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said that until now, Spain’s political parties were joined in pain over ETA violence. “Now I trust we will be joined in hope,” he said.

Zapatero has offered to hold talks with Basque separatist leaders once ETA agreed to lay down its arms, and Spain’s parliament has backed the move. He has also been an outspoken proponent of granting more home-rule to Spain’s 17 regions, including the Basque country and the northeastern economic powerhouse Catalonia. The issue has stirred great debate in Spain, with many on the right warning that the country could fall apart.

However, Zapetero was evasive when asked if he would now start negotiating with ETA under an offer he made last year, contingent on the group renouncing violence. “Any peace process after so many years of horror and terror will be long and difficult,” he told parliament.

The note of caution was echoed by other Spanish politicians. “The government has to be more prudent now than ever,” María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, the deputy prime minister, told reporters in Madrid. But, she added, “our hope and desire is that this is the beginning of the end.”

Speculation about an end to ETA’s armed campaign has been building for months, and last month Prime Minister Zapatero said he was optimistic ETA would soon declare a truce. While the group has announced cease-fires in the past, never before have they said they were permanently renouncing violence.

In the late 1980s, the group observed a truce while holding peace talks with the Spanish government in Algeria. In September 1998, it declared what it called an open-ended cease-fire that ultimately lasted 14 months. A single round of peace talks during that truce failed to yield an agreement to end the conflict, and ETA resumed attacks in 2000.

Many have speculated that ETA has been influenced by events in Northern Ireland. The Irish Republican Army, which had been fighting against British rule, declared a ceasefire in 1997. This led directly to the Good Friday peace accords the following year, which set up a power-sharing government. The IRA has since renounced violence for good, and its political wing Sinn Fein has become the largest Roman Catholic party in the province whose leaders regularly meet with the British and Irish prime ministers.

Spanish Defence Minister Jose Bono noted that the wording of ETA’s statement was significant. “They always spoke of a truce — now they speak of a ‘permanent ceasefire’ and this expression … is the one the IRA used when it definitively abandoned its arms,” Bono said.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who has often engaged with Basque leaders in recent years, welcomed ETA’s move and urged the Madrid government to respond. “ETA’s announcement provides all sides to the conflict with an opportunity of historic proportions,” he said in a statement

Not interested in competing with al-Qaida

ETA has been weakened by a series of arrests in recent years, the result improved cooperation between French and Spanish police. For many years France provided a safe haven for ETA members, a situation that began to change in the mid-1980s.

It is also clear that the the March 11, 2004, attacks in Madrid carried out by Islamic extremists, had a role in ETA’s decision. The group, already widely despised in Spain, even inside the Basque region, would have triggered an unprecedented level of outrage from the public had it continued with terrorist attacks after the carnage of the train bombings.

ETA’s campaign of violence had already made it unpopular with the majority of Basques. It is also unclear how many Basques truly want an independent state or whether they would be happy with more power devolved to their autonomous region. The regional government is currently run by the moderate Basque Nationalist Party, which sits in Madrid’s parliament.

Basque leader Juan Jose Ibarretxe welcomed the group’s decision. “It is the duty of ETA to no longer frustrate the dreams of our people,” he said.

Sources: Associated Press, New York Times, Reuters, Agence France Presse

ETA’s full communiqué

Euskadi Ta Askatasuna has decided to declare a permanent cease-fire from March 24, 2006.

The aim of the cease-fire is to promote a democratic process in the Basque country and set up a new framework in which our rights as citizens will be recognised, ensuring the development of political options facing the future.” At the end of that process Basque citizens must have the last word and make a decision on their future.

The French and Spanish states must accept the results of the cited democratic process with no sort of limitations. The decisions Basque citizens make on our future must be respected.

We call on different agents to act responsibly and be consequent facing ETA’s steps.

ETA calls on Spanish and French authorities to respond positively to this new situation leaving repression behind.

Finally, we call on Basque citizens to commit themselves to the cause and fight for our rights as a country.

ETA shows its desire and will for the open process to reach a conclusion, a real democracy in the Basque Country, overcoming a long-years conflict and achieving peace based on justice.

We stand by our commitment to make moves in the future in agreement with that will.

Overcoming the conflict is possible here and now. This is ETA’s desire and will. Basque Country, March 2006.

Euskadi Ta Askatasuna


Source: EITB – Basque News and Information Channel